Chapter 17. Government and Politics

17.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Government and Power

Black and white headshot of Talcott Parsons
Figure 17.23 American structural functionalist Talcott Parsons: “I conceive of political organization as functionally organized about the attainment of collective goals, i.e., the attainment or maintenance of states of interaction between the system and its environing situation that are relatively desirable from the point of view of the system” (1961, p. 435). (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 4.0

There has been considerable disagreement among sociologists about the nature of power, politics, and the role of the state in society. This is not surprising as any discussion of power and politics is bound to be political itself, that is to say divisive or “politicized.” It is arguably the case that sociologists are better positioned today, after a period of prolonged political exceptionalism, to see the nature of power and the state more clearly than during periods of peace or détente. It is during moments when the regular frameworks of political practice and behaviour are disrupted — through crisis, revolution, suspension of the law, the failure of states, war, or counter-insurgency — that the underlying basis of the relationship between the social and the political, or society and the state can be revealed and rethought.

Earlier in this chapter, it was noted that the radical standpoint of anarchism provides a useful standpoint from which to examine the sociological question of the state. A key sociological question posed by anarchism is: Why is government in the form of the state needed in the first place? Could people not do just as well without state government? What is the state for? On these questions, the organizational frameworks or paradigms that characterize the sociological tradition, including structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism, provide different approaches and answers.

Structural Functionalism

Talcott Parsons, in a classic statement of structural functionalism, wrote: “I conceive of political organization as functionally organized about the attainment of collective goals, i.e., the attainment or maintenance of states of interaction between the system and its environing situation that are relatively desirable from the point of view of the system” (Parsons, 1961). From the viewpoint of the system, the “polity” exists to perform specific functions and meet certain needs generated by society. In particular, it exists to provide a means of attaining “desirable” collective goals by being the site of collective decision making. According to functionalism, modern forms of government have four main purposes: planning and directing society, meeting collective social needs, maintaining law and order, and managing international relations.

The abstractness of Parsons’s language is both a strength and weakness of the functionalist approach to government and the state. It is a strength in the sense that it enables functionalist sociologists to abstract from particular societies to examine how the function of collective decision making and goal attainment is accomplished in different manners in various types of society. It does not presuppose that there is a “proper” institutional structure that defines government per se, nor does it presuppose what a society’s collective goals are. The idea is that the social need for collective goal attainment is the same for all societies, but it can be met in a variety of ways.

In this respect it is interesting to note that many nomadic or hunter-gather societies developed mechanisms that specifically prevent formal, enduring state organizations from developing. The typical “headman” structure in hunter-gatherer societies is a mechanism of collective decision making in which the head man takes a leadership role, but only provisionally on the basis of his prestige remaining recognized, his ability to influence or persuade, and his attunement with the group’s desires. The polity function is organized in a manner that actively fends off the formation of a permanent state institution (Clastres, 1989). Similarly, Parsons’s own analysis of the development and differentiation of the institutions of the modern state (legislative, executive, judiciary) shows how political organization in Western societies emerged from a period of “religio-political-legal unity” in which the functions performed by church and state were not separate.

The weakness in Parsons’s abstraction is that it allows functionalists to speak about functions and needs from the “point of view of the system” as if the system had an independent or neutral existence. The system is a self-perpetuating, neutral, spontaneously generated entity that determines functions and needs independently of human agency. A number of important aspects of power disappear from view by a kind of sleight of hand when sociologists attempt to take this viewpoint.

One dominant functionalist framework for understanding why the state exists is pluralist theory. In pluralist theory, society is made up of numerous competing interest groups — capital, labour, religious fundamentalists, feminists, LGBTQ+, communities of colour, immigrants, small business, homeless people, taxpayers, elderly, military, pacifists, etc. — whose goals are diverse and often incompatible. In democratic societies, power and resources are widely distributed, albeit unevenly, so no one group can attain the power to permanently dominate the entire society. Therefore, the state or government has to act as a neutral mediator to negotiate, reconcile, balance, find compromise, or decide among the divergent interests. From the point of view of the system, it maintains equilibrium between competing interests so that the functions of social integration and collective goal attainment can be accomplished. In this model, the state is an autonomous institution that acts on behalf of society as a whole. It is independent of any particular interest group.

On one hand, the pluralist model seems to conform to commonsense understandings of democracy. Sometimes one group wins, sometimes another. Usually there are compromises. Everyone has the potential to have input into the political decision-making process. However, critics of pluralist theory note that what disappears from an analysis that attempts to take the neutral point of view of the system and its functions is, firstly, the fact that the system itself is not disinterested — it is structured to maintain inequality; secondly, that some competing interests are not reconcilable or balanceable — they are fundamentally antagonistic; and, thirdly, that politics is not the same as administration or government — it is in essence disruptive of systems and equilibrium.

The difficulty Parsons has in accounting for these aspects of political life comes out in his discussion of the use of force to maintain the state’s legally sanction normative order (i.e., “the highest order of norms regulating the behaviour of units within the society”). Parsons writes,

No society can afford to permit any other normative order to take precedence over that sanctioned by “politically organized society.” Indeed, the promulgation of any such alternative order is a revolutionary act, and the agencies responsible for it must assume the responsibility of political organization (Parsons, 1961).

He suggests that an alternative normative order is not simply the product of a competing social interest that might be balanced with others, but a revolutionary threat to the entire system. From the “point of view of the system,” an alternative normative order is inadmissible and must be either violently suppressed or permitted to take responsibility for founding a new political organization of society. But from the point of view of the system, it is also not clear where, how or why such alternative normative orders can arise.

Critical Sociology

The question of why the state exists has been answered in a variety of ways by critical sociologists. In the Marxist tradition, the power of the state is principally understood as a means by which the economic power of capital is exercised and maintained. The state itself is in many respects subservient to the interests of capital. As Marx and Engels (1848) put it in The Communist Manifesto, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” While the state appears to be the place where power is “held,” the power of the state is secondary to the power of capital.

In the analysis of Nicos Poulantzas (1973), the state performs a key role in maintaining the integration of capitalist society, which is otherwise threatened by class conflict and even conflict within the capitalist class itself. In particular, the state performs three functions that serve the interests of the dominant classes: an accumulation function in which the state maintains the economic conditions for sustained capitalist investment and profitability, a legitimation function in which the state promotes the legitimacy of the social order (including the legitimacy of inequality and power structures) and secures social harmony and the consent of the public to be ruled, and (3) a coercive function in which, “in the last instance,” the state intervenes by use of force to repress sources of social unrest and disorder (Panitch 1977). Poulantzas emphasizes, however, that the state is not under the direct control of the capitalist class. He is not describing a conspiracy theory. Rather the state often intervenes in ways that seem to contradict the immediate interests of capitalists, especially when it implements taxes, welfare provisions, unemployment insurance, labour union rights, environmental protections, etc., or promotes policies that privilege one sector of the economy over another (e.g., resource extraction over manufacturing). Poulantzas notes that whereas the immediate interests of specific corporations might be to maximize profits in the short term, the role of the state is to maintain the long-term interests of capital as a whole (i.e., the stability of the system of private property and the future assurance of private accumulation of profit).

A second type of critical sociology is feminism. Catherine MacKinnon argued that “feminism has no theory of the state” (MacKinnon 1989). The feminist understanding of the state’s role in society and gender hierarchies is ambiguous. That is in part because the state has at times been an important ally for addressing feminist concerns and at other times an important mechanism for maintaining patriarchal power. One of the central organizational forums in the development of second-wave feminism in Canada was the formation of Status of Women committees that pressed the Lester Pearson government in the 1960s to establish the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970). The founding of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, as a “big tent” organization that included many different women’s groups, can be seen as a result of the Royal Commission in that it formed to lobby subsequent governments to implement the commission’s recommendations (Rebick 2005). In this case, the state is regarded as an institution that can be used to transform gender relations through legislation on sexual equality, parental  leave, access to birth control, reproductive rights, childcare, etc. The consciousness raising around the Royal Commission was also a pivotal event in which the private troubles of women were collectively recognized as public issues of social structure.

On the other hand, the state has a history of family and sexual policy that has reinforced women’s unpaid labour in the household, their subordinate status outside the household, and the intense moral regulation of women’s lives. This is not an accidental circumstance. MacKinnon (1982) argues, for example, that state power is in crucial respects sexual power, a power that institutionalizes male domination by enforcing the assumptions and social requirements of heterosexuality. While instances of overt male sexual abuse and coercion like rape, incest, sexual harassment, child pornography, and procurement for prostitution are subject to prosecution, this is only to protect the underlying male sexual dominance and female subordination of heterosexual relationships. “[T]he state protects male power [by] appearing to prohibit its excesses when necessary to its normalization” (MacKinnon 1989, p. 167). MacKinnon argues that the dominant concepts of jurisprudence that regulate the relation of law and life (i.e., the neutrality of the law, the protection of abstract rights and freedoms, etc.) have to be challenged from the point of view of women’s concrete experience of everyday gender inequality. For example, protecting the pornographer’s “freedom of speech” enables the continued exploitation, use, and abuse of actual girls and women who often do not have a meaningful choice to refuse such “employment.”

Michel Foucault
Figure 17.24 Michel Foucault: “In political thought and analysis we still have not cut off the head of the king” (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY SA 3.0

A third critical sociological perspective on the state can be found in the work of Michel Foucault who argues that the idea of the state is an abstraction that conceals a far more widespread and pernicious operation of power. The power of the state, understood to operate through the formulation and enforcement of rights and laws, relies on an order that is in fact produced by a multitude of non-state “micro-power” relationships that extend throughout society. These power relationships are disciplinary in nature, focused on fostering the capacities of human “life and what it can do” through the implementation of regimens or practices of improvement: in schools, hospitals, armies, families, prisons, etc. Foucault (1980a) argues that the focus on the state as a site of centralized power, “allow[s] a system of right to be superimposed upon the mechanisms of discipline in such a way as to conceal its actual procedures, the element of domination inherent in its techniques, and to guarantee to everyone, by virtue of the sovereignty of the state, the exercise of his proper sovereign rights…[T]his democratization of sovereignty [is] fundamentally determined by and grounded in mechanisms of disciplinary coercion.” The challenge to power must not be addressed towards the state, Foucault argues, but to the local sites, practices, relationships, discourses, and institutions where the effects of power are directly experienced. “In political thought and analysis we still have not cut off the head of the king” (1980b, pp. 88–89).

Symbolic Interactionism

Other sociologists study government and power by relying on the framework of symbolic interactionism, which is grounded in the works of Max Weber and George H. Mead. In this school, the meaning of the state and politics emerges through processes of communicative interaction. Only on the basis of the meanings attributed to politics can coherent political courses of action and behaviour be undertaken individually or collectively.

Symbolic interactionism, as it pertains to government, therefore focuses its attention on figures, emblems, or individuals that represent power and authority. Many diverse entities in larger society can be considered symbolic: trees, doves, wedding rings. Images that represent the power and authority of Canada include the Parliament Buildings, the beaver, and the Canadian flag. The Canadian national anthem, sung at sports events and official assemblies, incites respect and reverence in many Canadians. The symbolic nature of political discourses and political emblems are of course open to manipulation, which is often referred to as image politics. In fact the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan proposed that “Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be” (Newman, 1971, p. 42).

Overall, symbolic interactionists are not interested in large structures such as “the government” or “the state” as if they existed independently of the ongoing interactions that constitute them. One side of this, as discussed the “Politics and the Image” textbox (below), is their attention to the ongoing creation of symbols that give meaning to political life and activity. But as micro-sociologists, they are also interested in the face-to-face aspects of politics. In reality, much of politics consists of face-to-face backroom meetings and lobbyist efforts. What the public often sees is the front stage of politics that is sanitized by the media through gatekeeping. Symbolic interactionists are most interested in the meaningful interaction between the small groups who make decisions, or in the case of some recent parliamentary committees, who demonstrate the inability to interact meaningfully. The heart of politics is the result of small-scale exchanges between individuals and small groups over periods of time.

The long-standing complaint of increasing incivility in House of Commons debates, question period, and committee work points to the way that give-and-take interactions between parliamentarians have been severely curtailed in recent years (Samara 2011). These interactions are essential for creating mutual understanding and consensus as well as producing new meanings and perspectives that individuals use to make sure there are future interactions. To the degree that they break down or communication becomes dysfunctional, the elementary components that enable the legislative function of government to perform its activity independent of direct control by the Office of the Prime Minister (i.e., the executive function) are threatened and democracy itself is curtailed.

Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate

Politics and the Image


A staged political protest. Long description available.
Figure 17.25 Is the staging of image events a legitimate tactic in contemporary politics? (Image courtesy of Visible Hand/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0 [Image Description]

Politicians, political parties, and other political actors are also motivated to claim symbolic meanings for themselves or their issues. A Canadian Taxpayer Federation report noted that the amount of money spent on communication staff (or “spin doctors”) by the government in 2014 approached the amount spent on the total House of Commons payroll ($263 million compared to $329 million per year) (Thomas, 2014). While most sectors of the civil service have been cut back, “information services” have continued to expand. This practice of calculated symbolic work, through which political actors attempt to control or manipulate the impressions they make on the public, is known as image management or image branding. Erving Goffman (1972) described the basic processes of image management in the context of small scale, face-to-face settings (See Chapter 6. Social Interaction). In social encounters, he argued, individuals present a certain “face” to the group — “this is who I am” — by which they lay claim to a “positive social value” for themselves. It is by no means certain that the group will accept the face the individual puts forward, however. Individuals are therefore obliged during the course of interactions to continuously manage the impression they make in light of the responses, or potential responses of others — making it consistent with the “line” they are acting out. They continually make adjustments to cover over inconsistencies, incidents, or gaffs in their performance and use various props like clothing, hair styles, hand gestures, demeanour, forms of language, etc. to support their claim.The key point that Goffman makes is that one’s identity, face, or impression is not something intrinsic to the individual but is a socially mediated phenomenon. The fate of one’s “face” is radically in the hands of others and the “presentation of self in everyday life” is a tricky and uncertain business.On the political stage, especially in the age of mass-mediated interactions, image management and party branding are subject to sophisticated controls, calculations, and communications strategies. In effect, political image management is the process by which concrete, living historical events and processes — what politicians actually say and do in the public sphere day-to-day, how government policies are implemented, and what their effects on stakeholders and social processes are — are turned into ahistorical, “mythic” events and qualities: heroic struggles of good versus evil, prudence versus wastefulness, change versus stagnation, renewal versus decline. Political narratives draw on archetypal symbols of personal integrity, moral fortitude, decisiveness, toughness, feistiness, wisdom, tenacity, etc. Politicians and political parties claim a “positive social value” for themselves by attempting to plant a symbolic, mythic image in the minds of the public and then carefully scripting public performances to support that image.As Goffman points out with respect to face-to-face interactions, however, it is by no means certain that the public or the news media will accept these claims. The Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s Jet Ski photo op during the 2000 federal election undermined his credibility as potential prime ministerial material, just as Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield’s football fumble on the airport tarmac in the 1974 federal election undermined his bid to appear more youthful (Smith, 2012).Critics point to the way the focus on image in politics replaces political substance with superficial style.Using image to present a political message is seen as a lower, even fraudulent form of political rhetoric. Symbolic interactionists would note however that the ability to attribute persuasive meaning to political claims is a communicative process that operates at multiple levels. Determining what is and what is not a “substantial” issue is in fact a crucial component of political communication. Deluca (1999) argues that as a result of being locked out of the process of political communication, groups like environmental social movements can effectively bring marginalized issues into the public debate by staging image events. In the language of Greenpeace founder Robert Hunter, these are events that take the form of powerful visual imagery. They explode “in the public’s consciousness to transform the way people view their world” (cited in Deluca, 1999, p. 1). Greenpeace’s use of small inflatable Zodiac boats to get between whaling vessels and whales is one prominent example of an image event that creates a visceral effect in the audience.Similarly, the occupation of Ottawa in 2022 by protesters opposed to mask and vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic re-purposed semi-trucks as political emblems of wounded white privilege. Commenting on singer-songwriter Neil Young’s 2014 “Honour the Treaties” tour in Canada, Gill notes that the effectiveness of this type of image event is in the emotional resonance it establishes between the general public and Indigenous groups fighting tar sands development. “Plainly put, our governments don’t fear environmentalists, even icons like David Suzuki. But governments fear emotion, which they can’t regulate, and who but our artists are capable of stirring our emotions, giving them expression, and releasing the trapped energy in our national psyche?” (Gill, 2014). So, do image politics, political image management, and image events necessarily make democratic will formation less substantial and less issues oriented? As Deluca puts it, “To dismiss image events as rude and crude is to cling to ‘presuppositions of civility and rationality underlying the old rhetoric,’ a rhetoric that supports those in positions of authority and thus allows civility and decorum to serve as masks for the protection of privilege and the silencing of protest” (Deluca, 1999).

Image Descriptions

Figure 17.25 long description: Three mannequins are positioned upside down with their heads in the dirt in front of the Telus Convention Centre. Each is labeled as a particular Albertan politician. A sign reads, “Get your heads out of the tar sands.” [Return to Figure 17.25]

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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